Blogger Cameron Slater recently learned from an OIA request that the blog he’s associated with, The BFD, was under police surveillance. An unnamed police intelligence analyst was concerned Slater would “continue to publish uncorroborated information to denigrate labour [sic] party policies and individuals linked to them”.
Yes, you read that correctly. There are people in the police hierarchy who apparently think that anyone who criticises the government should be watched. This was also the mentality of East Germany’s Stasi, South Africa’s BOSS (the Bureau of State Security) and Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier’s murderous Tonton Macoute.
(Vladimir Ilyich Lenin didn’t care for dissenters either, as he made clear in a 1920 speech: “Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticised? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?” Lenin subsequently set up the OGPU, which eventually morphed into the KGB, to ensure he wasn’t bothered by such irritations. Someone like Slater would have gone straight to the Gulag.)
The documents released to Slater also included a request from an unnamed officer, couched in military-style jargon, describing him as racist and “anti-government” and asking for a “rundown” on him. The documents note that Slater’s reporting on Siouxsie Wiles, whom he labelled a hypocrite for appearing to flout lockdown restrictions that she had urged the public to comply with, was “consistent with past behaviours” such as defamation, breaching name suppression and “publishing erroneous reports on political opponents” – all of which are matters for civil, not criminal law, and therefore not the business of the police.
Ominously, a police intelligence briefing disclosed concern that Slater “will continue to public voice opinions on topical matters which may add to conspiracy theorist engagement across social media”. And an unnamed senior sergeant wondered whether the cops should pay Slater a visit because he posted “possibility [sic] controversial racist comments” about the September terrorist incident at LynnMall.
It’s hard to take this alarmist nonsense seriously, but we must. The documents reveal there are people in the police who think it’s their function to protect us against the free exchange of ideas and opinion – a right guaranteed to New Zealanders under the Bill of Rights Act. To put it more bluntly, these commissars-in-waiting apparently regard democracy as dangerous.
So being anti-government is now seen as a potential threat to public safety? This is the type of state paranoia that ultimately leads to monitoring of phone calls and knocks on the door at midnight. Slater was right to describe it as sinister.
As recently as two years ago I wouldn’t have imagined this sort of thing happening in one of the world’s most open democracies, but it’s surprising how quickly freedoms can be eroded. It starts with the marginalisation of unapproved views (the mainstream media are complicit in this) and advances rapidly to the point where dissent is denounced, suppressed and even made illegal. All it takes is a passive and apathetic populace – oh, and politicians too timid and too unsure of their own values to make a stand for individual freedoms.
Couldn’t happen in a liberal democracy like New Zealand? Don’t be so sure. During the 1951 waterfront dispute a National government invoked extreme powers under the Public Safety Conservation Act. These gave the police power to censor all publications, broadcasts and even private letters; seize printing presses and typewriters; arrest people who provided food, money or other support to striking workers and their families; ban public meetings; arrest people without warrant; and enter and search properties without a court order.
All of these powers were exercised by the police on the pretext that it was for the public good – and what’s most disturbing is that a compliant public and press went along. Who can say that under an equally determined government of the left, supported by a similarly sympathetic media, police won’t again be empowered to interfere with basic democratic freedoms? The appetite appears to be there, at least among some officers with dangerously inflated (and deluded) ideas about their function.
What next, I wonder. Will we hear people like Slater described as “enemies of the state” or “enemies of the people” – phrases used by brutal totalitarian regimes of both the extreme right (Nazi Germany) and extreme left (the Soviet Union) to justify the incarceration of troublesome individuals on the pretext that it’s for the good of society?
In this case, thank God, the unnamed police busybodies were over-ruled by wiser and more grounded senior officers. But the realisation that this type of censorious zealotry exists within the police should strike a cold chill in the heart of anyone who values open democracy – and all the more so when it remains possible that under so-called “hate speech” laws, the police will be given power to determine what we can and cannot say.
Disclosure: I haven’t met Cameron Slater, but I have written guest posts for The BFD and it has republished some posts from my blog by agreement. I have publicly disagreed with some of Slater’s tactics in the past. But freedom of speech is not a right that depends on the acceptability of the opinions expressed. Orwell (as so often) put it best: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.